Repenting of the Failure of Parish-Based Catechesis: Time for An Old Idea

"How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him?" (1 Sam. 16) 

The Problem

"Who can name the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?" It was Pentecost, and our pastor was walking up and down the middle aisle with a goofy grin and tone that said, "Bear with me, here." There were a few embarrassed chuckles from the congregants who hadn't already tuned out. Father pressed on, "Come on, anybody?" Again, the people dutifully and lightly snickered. This was supposed to be the funny set up of some point, right? I didn't think it was funny at all. I raised my hand.

I think our pastor was a little put out because he really hadn't intended for anyone to speak up. He made a comical face and then said, "Really?" The people laughed. Still grinning but with his hands on his hips, Father nodded at me, "Okay, let's hear it." So, I answered using the WUCKPuFF formula I had learned back in the third grade from Sr. Mary Randall, RSM. "Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Piety, Fortitude, Fear of the Lord." (Probably because I am a child of the Sixties, I prefer the word "Reverence" to "Fear of the Lord," but WUCKPuFR just doesn't work as well as a mnemonic.)

People gasped. Father approached our pew actually shocked. He was intrigued and, I guess, figured maybe I had gotten lucky. "Stand up and say them again. Slower." So, I did. And then our priest looked around and pointed at me and people applauded. Like I had done something extraordinary. Like I had said something brilliant. Like I was some kind of theological nerd, instead of just a fellow disciple in the pew, delineating something so catechetically pedestrian that seven-year-olds should know it before we ever think of placing the Eucharist in their little mouths. I would have been much more impressive explaining the meaning of all the gifts but Father clearly didn't want to go that far with his little trivia moment.

At the Sign of Peace, an older woman behind me shook my hand and leaned in conspiratorially. She said with a touch of bravado, "I knew Piety." I had to force myself not to grimace in dismay. "Peace be with you," I rejoined.

If I was pastor of this parish, and only one person in the pews could name the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, I would reorient my entire preaching calendar for the next seven months. And every month for the next seven would be on one of the Gifts. I would drill it in at every Sunday Mass until the whole parish would know in depth and forever, what God's life in us means, that is, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Looking around the church as Father moved on to whatever his point was—it certainly wasn't the scandal of religious ignorance—I thought to myself, "Was the Baltimore Catechism really so bad? Really?"

It's long past time for the Catholic Church in the United States to acknowledge and address the fact that in many, possibly most, dioceses, parish-based catechesis has been an abject failure. In the vaunted Year of Faith, it should sting all of our leaders and pastors that few of the ever-dwindling percentage of Catholics in the pews on a Sunday morning could pass a basic catechetical quiz. How many Gen X Catholics could name one of the precepts of the Church or recall any one set of the Mysteries of the Rosary? How many of our teenagers could list all Ten Commandments? How many First Communicants could recite the Acts of Faith or Hope, or name the Seven Sacraments? The terrible, tragic, and fundamental truth for 21st-century Catholicism is, not many!

It's beyond my scope here to say how devastating and even cruel it is for the Church Militant to perpetuate Her systemic failure in this area. Ignorance leads to suffering. Religious ignorance leads to eternal death.

We are awash in a broader culture of banality, ugliness, and stupidity, and we have several generations of disciples who are completely incapable of coping with it because of their double ignorance of their faith. Double ignorance, from Plato, means they don't know, and they don't know that they don't know.

I'll stipulate that there are some exceptions—parishes here and there that are handing on the faith well and forming solid little disciples. But they are the great exception and we can't let the fact of their existence derail the urgent discussion of what we have to do about rest.

About a month ago, a convert friend called me with pained concern in her voice. "Caitlin has been going to St. Charles' religious education program for more than a year now. She is supposed to make First Communion, but we are worried because she doesn't know anything." This news hit me hard. This was a family that had been catechumens in a RCIA program that I created in Hollywood for people in the entertainment industry who were coming into the Church. Caitlin, her mother and father and her little sister Laurie, were all accepted into the Church a few years ago, and now they were dealing with the scandal of banal catechesis. I agreed to meet with eight-year-old Caitlin.